THE turmoil at Eastern Airlines has been a long time coming, with enough blame to spread around union, management, and government. Looking back, bad decisions were made by both sides in the Eastern dispute. Some of labor's wage demands have been unrealistic, although their pay scales are in line with other airlines. Eastern chairman Frank Lorenzo's efforts to weaken unions and threats to break up Eastern have been unreasonable, to say the least. His record in taking advantage of airline deregulation is not especially good: parent company Texas Air Corporation has been posting record losses despite cost-cutting.
The top combatants - Mr. Lorenzo and Charles Bryan, the head of the airline's machinists union - have been acting out of personal animosity that goes well beyond acceptable bounds in the normally muscular world of labor disputes. The National Mediation Board, too, can be faulted for not stepping in sooner.
The goals now should be to avoid a broader strike which cripples transportation and to keep Eastern from collapsing, which would only decrease competition in an industry that has seen a number of mergers and takeovers. Congress can and should work on two things at this point.
First, it should look closely at ordering federal intervention in this case. President Bush has refused to order a cooling-off period and name an emergency panel to recommend a settlement. There are good arguments against the federal government getting involved in a union-management fight over jobs and wages. As inconvenient as they are to thousands of travelers, the troubles at Eastern do not involve national security or the general health of the US economy.
But the absence of any trust by the Eastern disputants, Lorenzo's attempts at union-busting, the failure of the National Mediation Board, and the troubling side-effects of airline deregulation also make this a special case. Given his other political problems, George Bush does not need a fight with organized labor. Here's a chance to act the peacemaker.
Second, lawmakers should take a hard look at the law which allows sympathy strikes by air and rail workers. A national transportation strike against innocent bystanders really is too heavy a bludgeon for any union to use.
The stakes are very high in what unfortunately has become an unusually acrimonious shouting match. It's a test of Lorenzo's whole philosophy of business and management. At a time when unions have been losing members and political clout, it's a test of labor's future too. There are signs of increasing militancy as members watch pay hikes fall behind non-union workers. With big contracts expiring this summer in the telecommunications and steel industries (among others) it's a time to navigate carefully between fairness and concern over wage-induced inflation.
All the more reason to settle the troubles at Eastern Airlines as soon as possible.